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Online Ergography: Harmless Fun or Risky Addiction?


British prime minister David Cameron’s recent initiatives to limit the availability of online ergography have stirred the concerns of civil libertarians worldwide, who fear the intrusion of government supervision over the wild-and-wooly, almost unregulated world of Internet free expression. However, there has been a surprising surge of support for some regulation of the erg industry from a coalition of unlikely allies. Voices favoring curbs on the availability of erg include British industry groups, who claim that increasing numbers of workers have become “addicted” to the ubiquitous photos and videos that depict actors engaged in back-breaking manual labor, often in exotic environments and hazardous conditions. Other erg opponents include some labor activists, who claim that the workers depicted in ergography are frequently exploited and put in danger.

Bertram Wilberforce Tweed, president of the London-based Industriousness Awareness Working Group (IAWG), pointed to alleged ill-effects of habitual erg consumption:

Ergography used to be something you had to go buy at the chemists’ from behind the counter, or go to a video store and rent. It was once limited to young people who’d never had a job, and wished perhaps to explore what working might really be like—or the chronically unemployed, who indulged in fantasy or nostalgia. But the Internet has changed all that. Increasingly British employers are finding that large swathes of their workforces are  ‘tuning-out’ of their regular duties, letting phone calls from supervisors go to voice mail, and ignoring urgent  emails. While they neglect their actual, paying work—which is admittedly, sometimes rather repetitive and dull—they are surreptitiously watching videos that would once have been considered shocking: Siberian miners, for instance, straining to dig gold out of the taiga; Indonesian sweatshop workers producing American sneakers; Tibetan peasants milking yaks in zero-degree conditions. Bizarre stuff, quite unrelated to any task they are likely to encounter in the workplace.

“We have found that as workers consume ever more ergography, they become inured to its milder (‘soft-core’) forms and require a stronger stimulus,” Tweed continued. “Someone who might once have been content to take a furtive look at a photo of a Welsh coal miner, for instance, will soon find himself searching chat sites and message boards for ‘hard core’ videos—of Japanese workers in radiation suits trying to clean up at Fukushima, or ‘vintage’ Stakhonovite films from the former Soviet Union. Socialist Realist art, once scorned by collectors, has now become a black market staple. Likewise, films depicting the American ante-bellum era, which feature slaves toiling in the fields.”

Speaking for the erg industry, Thom Bragg of the Mock-Work Trade Association (MWTA) dismissed the concerns of activists like Tweed:

Yes, it’s true that the occasional erg consumer will let things get out of hand—get so caught up in watching erg that he stops doing any actual work at his job. That happens—just as a solicitor who stops at a pub might decide to drink ten pints instead of two. I think we’d agree that that might impair his productivity. But how should we as a free society respond? Do we ban all drink? There are millions of British workers who indulge in a bit of fun watching other people ‘get busy,’ in moderation, and with no ill-effects. Should their freedom be taken away, merely because a few poor, addicted souls cannot restrain themselves? There are 12-step and other rehabilitation programs out there for people who really do become ‘hooked’ on erg, and the Mock Work industry supports those programs.

Not all agree that ergography is easy to consume in moderation. Yvor M., a member of Erg Addicts Anonymous (EAA), said that his life had become completely unmanageable as the result of his fixation on Internet erg. “I would just look at my to-do list in the morning, and feel as if it were a crushing mass of grey, meaningless tedium. Though from the outside, my work might seem interesting to others—I was a leading heart surgeon in London—to me it had all become tedious and interchangeable. I would try to perform a triple, or even a quadruple bypass, on a peer or a Member of Parliament. But it became harder and harder to use my scalpel. Even in the operating room, I would find myself lapsing back into the images I had been consuming online: Those long lines of Inuits, canning salmon in Anchorage under blinking fluorescent lights, or those grainy videos of dalits shoveling elephant dung in Mumbai. Real life work simply cannot compete.”

After several botched operations, Yvor said that he stopped even appearing at the hospital where he worked—but would stay at home, alone, sometimes wearing his surgical scrubs, watching Youtube videos of other doctors in action. “It felt realer, somehow, more exciting. It’s impossible to explain to someone who’s never been ‘hooked.’ That is why I’m so grateful I found the fellowship of EAA. We share our struggles, and hold each other to accountability.” Yvor now attends thrice-weekly meetings of EAA in the parish hall of the London Oratory, boasts eleven months of ‘sobriety’ and is applying for real-life work as a medical orderly. “It’s all about ‘one day at a time,’” he said.

Olivia Panckhurst, of the Erg Survivors Resistance Front (ESRF), offers a voice from the other side of the webcam. She admits that she was once a prominent erg star, appearing in more than hundred slickly produced videos in which she engaged in a bewildering variety of tasks. “I would do anything and everything. Sometimes they’d ask me to slowly, lingeringly, sponge the water rings off a marble bar; other times they wanted me to shear a sheep or arrange the lipstick on a cosmetics counter at Harrod’s. It’s amazing, the kind of things erg fans want to see—and they never want to see the same task accomplished twice. It’s all about variety, and exoticism,” she said. “I once played midwife to a lioness.”

But dabbling in so many strange professions has taken its toll on Panckhurst, she said. “I have tried to apply to proper jobs, but the people there often recognize me and leer. They’ll ask me to peel grapes for them, or clean their molars.  I realize that all those sweaty, busy images of me are out there online forever. My children are likely to see them.”

Panckhurst reflected, "I can't help thinking that if this were about something more important than just economics, then society would do something about it. Imagine if there were something similar that was undermining marriage or family life. Then you can bet that people would wake up to the danger.”

Currently unemployed, Panckhurst said that her years in the org industry have distorted her view of productive activity.  She explained: “I don’t see work as real now, anymore. I managed to get a situation as a waitress in a café. I would take the customer’s order, then turn around and look for the camera. Sometimes I couldn’t even bring the people their food, unless I pretended that I was being watched by thousands of wankers.”


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of  The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism.   His occasional writings are collected at The Bad Catholic's Bingo Hall.


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